Gods, philosophers and nuns

St Paul had to leave Thessalonica very quickly, chased out almost by those who had taken offence at what he had to say. We left without so much haste but followed the road that he took to Beroea. It was in this town that he found an audience willing to give him a hearing. They were welcoming, as Acts 17 tells us.

That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds. Then the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind. (Acts 17.10-15)

The bema of St Paul - the three steps below the mosaic

The bema of St Paul – the three steps below the mosaic

The people of this small town are still delighted that Paul visited them. As we drove along one of the main streets there were banners bearing the icon of the apostle announcing a festival. We headed for the ‘bema’ the oracle’s podium, the steps on which St Paul is said to have stood to deliver his address to the people, Good News about Jesus Christ that they were glad to hear.

Once again, we are told that there were women amongst them who were open to what Paul had to say. All the way along the journey so far we have been struck by the very receptive audience that he received from women. Given that Paul can have such a misogynist reputation among some groups in the west it is interesting that he was not perceived in that way by the women of his day – in fact, quite the reverse.

From that town we then headed towards the mountains, past Mount Olympus, where we thought about the pagan Gods and the cults that Paul confronted when he arrived in Greece and of which he had known before (after all he was from a culturally Greek community himself) and as we went we also thought about the great schools and traditions of philosophy.

Gay Walker rests in the sunshine after a good Greek lunch

Gay Walker rests in the sunshine after a good Greek lunch

We are fortunate on this pilgrimage to have Dr Mark Vernon with us who is helping to relate some of the philosophical traditions in Greece to the places that we are visiting. But what we gained today was the impression of a country and a people deeply concerned with the spiritual, with a sense of what lies within and beyond them, a people willing to ask and struggle with the big questions of life and a culture out of which so much of the Greek religious and monastic tradition has developed.

Sister Theoktisti greets us

Sister Theoktisti greets us

After lunch we then visited the Monastery of St John the Forerunner, the Baptist. There is a community of twenty nuns there and five novices. They have built a church close to where a former monastery stood and live a simple life, farming and writing icons, carving and doing anything that can serve and sustain their life. Sister Theoktisti met us and spent the afternoon with us. She was born in England but become an Orthodox nun and is part of this community. Her sisters come from twelve different countries, a real gathering of nations in one place.

Sister told us about their life as a community

Sister told us about their life as a community

She was remarkable, full of grace, communicating peace and holiness. We all loved her. When I asked her for a word for us who live not 1100 metres above sea level on a wooded mountain, keeping sheep and bees and worshipping in splendid isolation but are in the midst of a bustling, diverse, distracting city she told us

‘Look for God in yourself and in your neighbour – smile at someone who doesn’t expect you to smile at them and you will change their day.’

It was a privilege being allowed into their home. We left the monastery and made our way to Kalambaka at the foot of the Meterora better and moved by the experience. We will be visiting monasteries and icon workshops tomorrow. But I have already seen something of the face of Christ in Sister Theoktisti.

God of revelation,
make yourself known to us
in the people we meet
and the places through which we travel
for you are present in both.

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